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Low-Calorie Cocktails

5 ways to keep from overloading on calories when you have an alcoholic drink.

From the WebMD Archives

It's been a long week, and you're looking forward to happy hour. But a night on the town can do serious damage to your diet, especially if you order cocktails made with high-calorie mixers.

Still, happy hour doesn't have to be a diet downer. With a little planning, you can avoid diet disaster, and there are some alcoholic drinks that are relatively low in calories.

It's all too easy to overdo it with alcohol calories. We all know desserts are fattening. But when it comes to alcoholic drinks, sometimes the calories don't register, even though a single chocolate martini has more calories than a McDonald's grilled chicken sandwich. In fact, 1 gram of alcohol has 7 calories, compared to only 4 calories for a gram of carbohydrates or protein.

close-up of cherries in a martini glass

And calories add up even more quickly for mixed drinks than for beer and wine. The standard 1.5 ounce serving of 80-proof alcohol has 96 calories even before you add any mixers. A 6-ounce serving of orange juice has 84 calories, but add a shot of alcohol to make it a screwdriver, and the calories more than double.

Calories aren't the only reason to take it easy on alcohol. Not only do cocktails boost calories, they also have a powerful impact on your inhibitions.

"Your resolve can be really strong when you are sober, but after a few drinks, you may find yourself mindlessly overeating the nuts, another slice of pizza, or whatever food is within striking distance," says Christine Gerbstadt, RD. Drinking alcohol can also make you feel hungrier because alcohol can lower blood sugar.

What Makes Calories in Alcoholic Drinks Add Up?

The number of calories in mixed drinks depends on several things, including the amount and proof of the alcohol; the mixers; and the size of the drink.

"It's the mixers, syrups, and sodas that really get people into calorie trouble, because most drinks start with 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits that only have around 96 calories, but mixologists can easily turn that into a drink with hundreds of calories," says Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, co-author of The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous.

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Whether you're drinking a beer or a cosmo, the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories, says O'Neil. For example:

  • 80-proof vodka (40% alcohol; the most common type) has 64 calories per 1oz
  • 86-proof vodka (43% alcohol) has 70 calories/1 oz
  • 90-proof vodka (45% alcohol) has 73 calories/1 oz
  • 100-proof vodka (50% alcohol) has 82 calories/1 oz

When it comes to portion size, the average serving size of wine and alcoholic beverages is probably smaller than you think. Beer, on the other hand, is more standardized in bottles and beer glasses, except if you are in a European beer garden.

Most glasses of wine contain 125-150 calories, but that can double depending on the size of the glass size and how full it is. At cocktail or dinner parties, glasses are often refilled before empty, making it especially hard for dieters to track their alcohol and calorie consumption.

Beer can range from 64-198 calories per 12 ounces. Light beers are a better choice because "they contain the same amount of alcohol as regular beers but fewer carbohydrates," says Gerbstadt. And, she adds, "low-carb beer is just another term for light beer."

Another diet destroyer is the rising popularity of super-caloric cocktails.

Some are desserts in disguise, from chocolate martinis to hot buttered rum. Creative cocktails are all the rage, and bartenders are tempting patrons with mega-calorie cocktails like the Key lime pie martini. It's creamy, delicious -- and loaded with calories, from the cream to the graham-cracker crust rim.

"The trend in cocktails is to sugar the rim, add chocolate syrup or any number of creative sweet touches that boost calories, and turn the cocktail into a dessert," says O'Neil.

If you must have one of these, she advises, trim your dinner calories and enjoy your cocktail afterward as a dessert. Better yet, order a small after-dinner liqueur, like Amaretto, over ice and sip it slowly.

And then there are the super-sized drinks. Some chain restaurants serve jumbo drinks, like margaritas with double shots and extra mixers, that could add up to 1,000 calories or more in one mug, Gerbstadt says. A single giant glass of TGI Friday's frozen mudslide, for example, contains 1,100 calories.

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5 Tips to Curb Alcohol Calories

So how do you keep those calories in alcoholic drinks from adding up so quickly? Here are five tips from the experts.

1. Alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks to save calories. The savvy dieter finishes one cocktail, glass of wine or beer, then has a "mocktail" -- a nonalcoholic, preferably zero-calorie beverage (like sparkling water with a lime) that looks like the real thing. This strategy not only reduces the risk of over-consuming calories and alcohol, but it also helps you stay hydrated so your head will thank you in the morning!

"It is a good idea to start the evening with a tall glass of water or sparkling water to satisfy your thirst so you won't use the alcoholic beverage to do it for you," adds Gerbstadt.

2. Choose wine, light beer, or simple cocktails made with low-calorie mixers. Just as you might order your salad with dressing on the side, don't be shy about asking for your cocktail your way.

"You can save 100 calories if you have a diet soda as your mixer," says Dawn Blatner-Jackson, MS, RD, author of The Flexitarian Diet.

Mix cocktails with water, club soda, low calorie juices, artificial sweeteners or sugar-free syrups for easy calorie savings. Fruit and vegetable juices can be good choices because they are lower in calories than some other mixers and also contain disease-preventing antioxidants. Still, "be careful of fruit juices because even though they are more nutritious, the calories can add up quickly," says Blatner-Jackson.

Some mixers that won't pack on the pounds include:

  • Diet soda or diet tonic: 0 calories
  • Orange juice (6 oz): 84 calories
  • Cranberry juice cocktail (8 oz): 136 calories
  • Light orange juice (8 oz): 50 calories
  • Light cranberry juice (8 oz): 40 calories
  • Light lemonade (8 oz): 5 calories
  • Coffee, tea: 0 calories
  • Baja Bob's sugar-free margarita or sweet 'n' sour mix: 0 calories
  • Lemon or lime juice (1/2 oz): 10 calories
  • DaVinci or Torani's sugar-free syrups: 0

3. Skip the mixer altogether. Try ordering your favorite spirit or one of the new flavored liquors on the rocks. "Infused vodkas are very popular because they are not sweetened but infused with flavors, from jalapeno to peach, without adding any extra calories," says O'Neil.

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4. Dilute your drink. Another option is diluting your drink with club soda or sparkling water. Wine spritzers are a low-calorie standby. And if you usually drink vodka and cranberry, for example, try it with club soda, just a splash of cranberry juice, and a squeeze of lime. Garnish with a wedge of citrus or pineapple to add flavor and few calories.

5. Have a game plan. Before heading out to the cocktail party or happy hour, make sure you have a game plan. Decide in advance the number of cocktails you are going to drink and cut back on calories during the day in anticipation. But eat a light snack before you go so you won't get tipsy with the first drink and it will be less tempted to dive into the food. Always be aware of your own personal limits. Don't drink too much, and, of course, don't drink and drive.

How Many Calories in Popular Cocktails?

So just how many calories are in your favorite cocktail? These calorie counts for popular alcoholic drinks are approximate, based on popular recipes, but may vary depending on ingredients and portions.

  • Pina Colada (6 oz): 378 calories
  • Mojito (8 oz): 214 calories
  • Cosmopolitan (4 oz): 200 calories
  • Chocolate martini: (2 oz each vodka, chocolate liqueur, cream, 1/2 oz creme de cacao, chocolate syrup): 438
  • Margarita (8 oz): 280
  • Skinnygirl margarita (4 oz): 100
  • Green apple martini (1 oz each vodka, sour apple, apple juice): 148
  • Martini (2.5 oz): 160
  • Port wine (3 oz):128
  • Bloody Mary (5 oz): 118
  • Red wine (5 oz):120
  • White wine (5 oz): 120
  • Alcohol-free wine (5 oz): 20-30
  • Beer (12 oz): 150-198
  • Light beer (12 oz): 95-136
  • Ultra-light beer (12 oz): 64-95
  • Champagne (5oz): 106-120
  • Coffee liqueur (3 ounces): 348
  • Godiva chocolate liqueur (3 oz): 310
  • Wine spritzer (5 oz): 100
  • Eggnog with rum (8 ounces): 370
  • Hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps (8 oz): 380
  • Hot buttered rum (8 oz): 292
  • Spiced cider with rum ( 8 oz):150
  • Mulled wine (5 oz): 200
  • Vodka and tonic (8 oz): 200
  • Screwdriver (8 oz): 190
  • Mimosa (4 oz): 75
  • Gin and tonic (7 oz): 200
  • Long Island iced tea (8 oz): 780
  • White Russian (2 oz vodka, 1.5 oz coffee liqueur, 1.5 oz cream): 425
  • Mai Tai (6 oz) (1.5 oz rum, 1/2 oz cream de along, 1/2 oz triple sec, sour mix, pineapple juice): 350
  • Rum and Coke (8 oz): 185
  • Rum and Diet Coke (8 oz): 100
  • Mike's Hard Lemonade (11 oz): 98

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.

WebMD Expert Column

Sources

SOURCES: 

Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, co-author, The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous. 

Christine Gerbstadt, MD, MPH, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. 

Dawn Blatner-Jackson, MS, RD, author, The Flexitarian Diet. 

2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. 

American Heart Association. 

Calorieking.com.

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